Reprinted with permission from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.
Jacob is the third patriarch of the Jewish people, son of Isaac and Rebecca, and grandson of Abraham, whose story is told in the book of Genesis (25:19 to the end of the book). On the critical view, the Jacob saga in Genesis is an amalgam of various sources and traditions. For all that, most critics believe that there is a core of historical fact to all the traditions; only a very few accept the notion that Jacob and the other two patriarchs are fictitious persons. From the point of view of the Jewish tradition, it is not, in any event, the historical Jacob who matters most but Jacob as he appears in Genesis as the progenitor of the twelve tribes constituting the “children of Israel.” In the Genesis narrative, Jacob, Yaakov in Hebrew, is so called because at his birth he seized hold of the heel (akev) of his twin brother, Esau (Genesis 25:25), while the name Israel was given to him by the angel with whom he wrestled (Genesis 32: 25-33).
A Struggle Between Brothers
Among the salient features in Jacob’s life, as told in Genesis, are that Esau sold him his birthright for a “mess of pottage” (24: 27-34); that, at the instigation of his mother, Rebecca, he tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him, instead of Esau, the blessing (ch. 27); that he fled from Esau’s wrath to his uncle Laban whose two daughters, Rachel and Leah, he married and by them, and by the two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, he had twelve sons in all (chs. 29 and 30); that he came to sojourn in the land of Egypt (chs. 45 and 46); and that he was taken after his death to be buried in the land of his fathers (“the land of Israel”) in the cave of Mahpelah (ch.50).
It is a moot point whether the Genesis narrator approves or disapproves of Jacob’s subterfuges in wrestling the birthright and the blessing from his brother. The prophet Hosea certainly indicts Jacob for “supplanting” (akav, a pun on the name Yaakov) his brother and in subsequent Jewish commentary on the narrative there are echoes of disapproval of Jacob’s stratagems, if not of his right to both the birthright and the blessing. On the other hand, there are many attempts to defend Jacob as acting honorably given the circumstances in which he found himself. It has to be appreciated that Jacob is seen in the Jewish tradition as representing the Jewish people so that attacks on the character of the patriarch are often seen as, and, indeed, sometimes are, motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.
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